Maintaining your cutting edge

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Steps to success

Are you familiar with this story… about the woodcutter, trying to cut down a tree?

He’s sawing away, sweat pouring off him.

An onlooker asks, “What are you doing?”

“Can’t you see, I’m sawing down this tree,” he replies.

“You look exhausted,” says the bystander.

“I’ve been at it for hours,” complains the woodcutter, still sawing away.

“Why don’t you take a break and sharpen the saw, make it go quicker?”

The woodsman huffed, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. I’m too busy sawing!”

Author and personal development master, Stephen Covey uses this fable to illustrate the seventh of his ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ (Free Press, 1989): the habit of ‘Sharpening the Saw’ which is to “preserve and enhance the greatest asset you have you.”

Covey asks us to consider four areas of life that need our attention for renewal:

* Physical including beneficial eating, exercise and rest

* Social/Emotional creating and maintaining meaningful connections with others

* Mental includes learning, reading, writing, teaching, personal and professional development

* Spiritual which might include spending time in nature, meditation, music, art, creativity expanding the spiritual self, contribution etc.

‘Sharpening the Saw’ keeps us fresh, restores energy and focus, it offers opportunities for new or different perspectives which together ultimately increases productivity, capacity and our ability to handle challenges. It’s not just managing stress, but proactively maintaining ourselves functioning at our best.

I had a friend who almost bragged that he hadn’t taken a holiday in three years. I wasn’t impressed. Holidays, depending what you decide to do with them, at the very least offer a change of scenery, pace, and people: an opportunity to switch gears and consider the state of our saw blade.

Dull saws lead to burn-out, getting run down (physically and emotionally), feeling drained, behind the times and as a result our productivity, ideas and resilience begin receding.

Investing in ourselves and reaping the rewards of feeling good and being top of our game doesn’t just happen. We have to make the effort and it is an investment.

Motivational speaker and businessman T. Harv Eker, author of “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind” (HarperCollins, 2005), suggests in his wealth management ‘jars’ system that we dedicate 10% of our income to Education (our learning, not the kids’ college fund) and 10% to Play. Depending what you consider ‘play’ to include, a budgeting and wealth building system that encourages us to actively spend one fifth of our income on what is essentially ‘sharpening the saw’, suggests that the return on this investment must be worth the price.

“The best investment you can make is in yourself. Anytime that you can invest in yourself, you will get a payout 1000 / 1, ” Warren Buffet, arguably the most successful investor of the twentieth century, is quoted as saying.

Smart companies recognize the importance of this and budget to keep their people in great condition with ‘perks’ like healthy cafeteria options, gym memberships, training opportunities and other ‘sharpening’ benefits. These benefits are self-serving as happy, healthy employees are productive and such proactive investments measure favorably against the reactive costs of the alternative.

Beyond money, an investment in ourselves equally includes time and effort. We have to actually use those perks and benefits on offer. It’s easy to say, ‘I’ll just skip the gym/reading time/meditation/stories at bedtime etc. to keep working and get more done,’ without realizing the detrimental accumulative effects this has. It requires making the time for ourselves: marking appointments in our calendars and adhering to them as strictly as we would a paying client or customer.

I am an eager saw sharpener. Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend four sharpening my axe.” I’ve adopted a rule of 15% of income and a minimum of 9 hours of an average week and 2.5 weeks of holiday time to invest in active personal and professional development. In my line of work, the two very closely overlap, but for anyone, both are a benefit to the whole.

I like to attend courses, seminars, conferences etc. and look forward to the learning and challenges they provide, an opportunity to up my skills, gain perspective, find new ways of doing things, and get a change from the everyday. I’ll admit though, that I have a propensity to become a ‘course junkie’ if I’m not careful. I love a learning environment and I’d happily sign up for anything if resources were unlimited. You may have encountered those that jump on every training workshop despite its relevance or not. This is not what I’m referring to. What is really going to get the saw sharp are focused efforts, carefully considered to have the greatest impact on the goals and outcomes we are truly looking to achieve.

This week I’m off on an eight-day course to experience and learn about a therapeutic process that I expect will improve my performance and inform my coaching. I’m a little nervous: on Day 1 we have to hand in all mobile phones, laptops, music and reading gadgets (even magazines) for the duration. I mentioned this to someone and the thought alone made them break into a cold sweat. It will certainly be a departure from my usual mindset and step outside my comfort zone, but that’s where growth happens and I’m looking forward to the challenge.

But sharpening doesn’t just come in the form of big undertakings. It is also the constant small improvements that help us focus better and become more efficient.

Some ideas might include:

* Take the time to better organize ourselves (be it our desk, our inbox, our closets etc.)

* Take breaks from a project to get a new perspective or renew your energy and enthusiasm

* Set and review daily, weekly, and longer-term goals in all areas of a balanced life

* Create a log of daily activities and interruptions to see where you can make efficiencies

* Make time to read up and educate yourself, keeping up with developments

* Investigate technologies that will genuinely improve efficiency

* Factor ‘sharpening’ activities into your weekly schedule (visits, classes, quiet time etc.)

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think... I read and think.” says Warren Buffet.

I’ll be back in a fortnight, when I ‘plug back in’, hopefully much renewed and extra sharp. Meanwhile, how will you invest in yourself? What small refinements or larger commitments will you make time for, to really sharpen your saw going forward and keep you performing at your best?

Julia Pitt is a trained Success Coach and certified NLP practitioner with Benedict Associates Ltd. Telephone (441)295-2070 or visit for further information.

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Published Jul 2, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm)

Maintaining your cutting edge

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